Saturday, November 1, 2014
Things that go Bump in the Night
With something like this, there is always a series of things going wrong, of course. We left Morro Bay intending to go just around the corner to Port San Louis, but I convinced Lindsay that we should make for Conception now that the weather was still good. So, despite the wind blowing gently from the South (urging us to turn around) and the current pushing us in the other direction, I, like Ahab fighting the elements, pushed on through to nightfall to the South. I wanted to get around Point Conception before "the first winter storm of the season" came crashing down upon the west coast of California, and find a safe harbor of refuge from it all. Consequently, I opted to skip the anchorage just around Point Conception, which we passed at around 3 AM, and head on for San Miguel Island. Lindsay and I were taking turns napping and watching out for traffic, and I was mostly paying attention to the traffic going in and out of the shipping lanes (which we were crossing to get to the island), but I overlooked a little yellow dot on the chart. It was a bouy, and a big steel one at that. I didn't see it, and I swear that it doesn't have a working light on it. Lindsay will back me up on that. Altair hit it going about 4 knots, which isn't much, but the swell and swing of the steel bouy might have added to the punch. Punch it did, a 4-6 inch hole right in the bow, about 6 inches below the waterline. The bilge filled up quickly and I went out on the front to try to fill the hole up, but it wasn't going to be easy, so I went inside and madly threw tons of things out of the bow to get to the bare hull. A surprisingly short time later I faced a large pool of water and the difficult prospect of damage control. Happily, I had an innertube from a motorcycle given to me by my kind sister, and I cut a portion of this open and tried to wedge it into the hole using a small round plug. It worked, but not totally, and I tried to wedge more things around it all to staunch the flow. I got the flow down so I could drive the boat and keep ahead of it with the engine, so we started to make way for Santa Barbara, where we could haul out and fix it. Then I called the Coast Guard. I knew if I called them, it would be out of my hands from then on, so I wanted to see if I really NEEDED their help, but i also thought the prudent thing would be to let them know the situation and if things got worse they would be ready. They promptly sent out a patrol cutter, and in less than two hours they had arrived on the scene. Sadly, we didn't get back to Santa Barbara (where they had left from) until 10 hours later, on account for the slow speed of my own vessel.
A team came aboard and I showed them the hole, and they got to work on it. They brought aboard a giant gas powered pump, and in about 4 seconds cleared the bow to get a look at the damage, then worked on it for about an hour before we got underway again. Everyone started making jokes when we began to move along at 4 knots, and I heeded the peer pressure and put the throttle as far forward as I have ever done, bringing us up to 5 knots. In the back of my mind I didn't want to do it, but I figured the engine would be all right. The conditions were perfect for a rescue, with light winds under 5 knots and some mild swell, and we puttered along slowly with the big cutter gliding along next to us like a big mother goose. After a few hours the winds built up a little from the east, so we were brought down to 4 knots despite the full throttle, and when the wind shifted a little from the south I put up a reefed mainsail in order to get some wind. Spray spashed on the bow, getting one of the two Coast Guard gentlemen rather wet and getting the big pump a little wet as well. I could feel the cockpit getting warm from the engine heat and water began to pour into the bilge from the back of the boat. Two Leaks! I opened the Lazarette and discovered the engine heat (and perhaps that the exhaust was almost always under water, so making a higher back pressure in the exhaust pipe, causing still higher heat) had caused the water line to the exhaust pipe to rupture and it was spitting water and some exhaust into the very crowded compartment. I pulled a bunch of crap out of the Lazarette and into the cockpit (which was crazy full of all sorts of things) and cut the water line, re-clamped it and turned the engine back on. We were set again! The water stopped flowing into the bilge from that angle and I was pleased. We were approaching the closest lee-shore just before the harbor entrance with 10-12 knot winds blowing in our face when the engine slowed and died, like it had run out of fuel. I was most disapointed, but pulled out the spare fuel tank and filled it up again, primed the system and turned it back on again. Maybe the full throttle had burned five times the fuel I had anticipated. I turned the throttle down a bit this time, rolled out the forward sail (the genoa) and motor-sailed for another 15 minutes until the engine died again. No more fuel, so I guess it is a fuel leak, probably because of the high heating problem. Meanwile, on the bow, they had been pumping the big pump once every half an hour, and they went to turn it on, but no joy. The spray wasn't doing anybody any good. After a bit of fuss, they got it running, so that was a welcome relief. Another thing that went wrong at this point was that their two-way radio gave up the ghost, from being dunked in salt water. So they didn't have communications with their mothership. The mothership wanted that communication, so we began to use my VHF radio, which is right in the middle of the whole show, in the cockpit. So it was a mess, tilting and bashing into small chop, hissing and chirping in radio lingo, with heaps and mounds of all sorts of things (I had put everything I could find that was heavy in the back in order to raise up the bow, so I had all the water jugs back there, and we had got the survival suits out, along with all the things we might want if we were to abandon ship in a hurry-we launched the skiff shortly after impact in order to have that option avaliable, so it was under tow) In short, it was disorganized and packed in the cockpit. The engine was out, the comms were difficult, the boat was still taking on water and my confidence in the de-watering pump was a bit shaken, and it had been a long day for everyone (I got about 20 minutes of sleep the night before). Now we got to the mouth of the harbor. Everyone was out playing, as it was a friday afternoon. We had to get in as quickly as possible in order to get hauled out, and the haul-out place was kind enough to stay open later than normal for us, but there were pleasure boats and small sailing dinghies with kids and cruise ship ferries (the Golden Princess was anchored off the harbor) and Pelicans diving in and Sea Lions honking and hooting at the spectacle. I sailed right into the harbor and was intent on going for the haul-out dock when the harbor patrol came alongside and hooked up to tow me in the rest of the way. It was much welcome, and they spun me expertly into the travelift straps (in reverse of course) and the travelift hoiste us up out of the water. I am currently sitting aboard Altair writing this while softly swaying in the straps a few feet above the pavement. They will get us all set up on Monday. For the weekend, I will try to clean out the boat, but it is currently Halloween. This is the closest I have been to sinking Altair, and I am really thankful of the USCG Cutter Blackfish's crew who helped me out through the ordeal, most specifically, Rob and Luke, who came aboard, fixed up the hole in the bow, and then stuck it out, through thick and thin with this frail plastic sailboat when all things began to go wrong.
Posted by cdlloyd